Breaking News

Opinion analysis: Court reverses habeas grant and limits application of Miranda

Alan Raphael is a professor at the Loyola University of Chicago School of Law.

While serving a sentence in a Michigan jail, Randall Fields was escorted from his cell to a conference room in an adjacent building, where he was questioned by two armed sheriff’s deputies for seven hours  until the early morning about whether he had engaged in sexual conduct with a twelve-year-old boy before his incarceration. His eventual confession to the sexual acts was admitted in evidence when he was charged with criminal sexual conduct, for which he was convicted. Fields challenged the admission of the confession on the ground that it was obtained in violation of his rights under Miranda v. Illinois, but he was unsuccessful in state court.  He then went to federal court seeking habeas relief, which the district court granted and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed.   Yesterday in Howes v. Fields, the Supreme Court reversed the grant of habeas corpus. The Court unanimously agreed that Fields failed to satisfy the requirements of the habeas corpus statute for obtaining such relief. In addition, six Justices determined that he was not in custody at the time of the interrogation, so that the Miranda requirements did not apply to his confession.

At the beginning of the questioning, Fields was told that he could go back to his cell whenever he wanted but that there would be a delay because, as was common in the jail, another officer would have to be summoned to escort him back to the building housing his cell.  The officers never told Fields that he was free to decline to answer their questions. Fields was not restrained in the conference room. The door to the room was sometimes open and sometimes shut. Halfway through the interview, Fields became agitated and began to yell. One of the deputies cursed at him and told him “if [he] didn’t want to cooperate, [he] could leave.” Several times during the interview, Fields said he did not want to continue talking with the deputies, but he did not ask to return to his cell until the end of the seven-hour period. At that time, it took twenty minutes before he was escorted back to his cell.

Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), a federal court may grant a petition for a writ of habeas corpus if the state court application of law “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” Clearly established law is limited to actual holdings by the Court, rather than dicta or extensions of existing law.

Under Miranda, any statement obtained by government officials during custodial interrogation is inadmissible in evidence in the prosecution’s case in chief unless first the defendant was informed of his constitutional rights to silence and the assistance of counsel and had made a knowing waiver of those rights before making the incriminating statement. Fields was never told his rights before being questioned. In affirming the grant of habeas relief, the Sixth Circuit held that because Fields was in custody when he made the statement, the statement should not have been admitted in evidence against him. It reasoned that a prisoner will always be in custody for Miranda purposes if he has been removed from the institution’s general population, taken to an isolated place apart from the general prison population, and questioned about acts occurring outside of the institution.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Alito that was joined in full by five other Justices, concluded that the Sixth Circuit rule was not clearly established by Supreme Court precedents. Instead, the Justices noted that “we have repeatedly declined to adopt any categorical rule with respect to whether the questioning of a prison inmate is custodial.” It distinguished earlier cases in which the Court found incarcerated people to be in custody as holding that people locked up can be in custody for Miranda purposes, rather than holding that they must be found to be in custody. Justice Ginsburg, joined by two other Justices, agreed with the Court’s holding that habeas relief was inappropriate in this case because there was no Supreme Court precedent which clearly established that Fields was in custody.

The Court was divided, however, on whether in fact Fields was in custody when he made the statement, such that his confession would have been inadmissible under Miranda if the issue came up on direct appeal rather than habeas  — an issue that the Court did not need to decide to resolve this case. The majority concluded that Fields had not been in custody. It focused on the fact that Fields had been told that he could  leave when he wished to do so, his failure to request that he be returned to his cell until after the questioning ended, and the differences between prisoners and people who were not locked up before being questioned.

First, the Court noted that the normal situation of a person removed from her home or the street and taken to a police station is much more jarring and traumatic than when a prisoner is taken from one controlled environment to another. The prisoner is in familiar surroundings, while the person outside of prison is suddenly put in unfamiliar and threatening surroundings. Second, a prisoner, unlike another person being questioned, is not likely to make a statement in the belief that he will then be returned to freedom. Third, the prisoner probably knows that the people questioning him have no ability to bring about his early release, while other people being questioned are more likely to believe that cooperation with the police interrogators will facilitate their return to society. Thus, the concerns at the heart of Miranda, designed to eliminate the subtle coercive atmosphere during interrogation, are less likely to be triggered by the questioning of a person confined in a jail or prison.  The Court recognized that all of the facts surrounding the questioning of an inmate should be considered to determine whether the person was in custody for Miranda purposes. The majority did not believe that the removal of an inmate from the general prison population increased the likelihood that the person was subject to coercion, nor did it regard the distinction between questions about matters occurring within or outside the prison to have any bearing on whether Miranda rights were triggered.

In her separate opinion (joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor), Justice Ginsburg dissented from the majority’s holding that Fields was in custody when he was questioned. In the dissent’s view, Fields was in a “police-dominated atmosphere” of the type that Miranda viewed as inherently coercive and thus requiring the warning of rights and the obtaining of a waiver before a statement can be admitted into evidence.  The dissenters cited several factors as demonstrating that Fields was in fact in custody:  the police, not Fields, initiated the questioning; Fields was held incommunicado for seven hours; and he had frequently indicated that he did not want to answer the officer’s questions,. In addition, the dissenters emphasized that the officers were armed and that they never informed Fields that he had a right to decline to speak with them.  Thus, although these Justices agreed with the other six that Fields could not meet the standard required for habeas relief, in their view he would have been “in custody” for Miranda purposes had this case been on direct appeal.

The decision reversing the grant of habeas relief was predictable in light of the Court’s long insistence on looking at all the facts surrounding the procurement of an incriminating statement to determine whether Miranda custody existed. Thus, the Sixth Circuit’s creation of an absolute rule for determining custody in prison settings was certain to be rejected. The decision on custody, while unnecessary to decide this case, may be more significant. While recognizing that people in prison could “in custody” for Miranda purposes, the decision suggests  that persons who are incarcerated will rarely be deemed to be “in custody” because an inmate is familiar with the environment and is used to routine prison constraints. Possibly, but not certainly, this opinion may suggest that the majority of the Court will find Miranda custody for non-incarcerated persons only in more stressful situations than has previously been true:  here, for example, the Court concluded that Fields was not in custody despite the lengthy nighttime questioning by armed guards who cursed at the inmate and repeatedly ignored his requests to stop the questioning.  Thus, the standard for finding custody outside the  jail or prison may be changing as well in the future.

Recommended Citation: Alan Raphael, Opinion analysis: Court reverses habeas grant and limits application of Miranda, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 22, 2012, 1:01 PM),